Columbia businesses and nonprofit organizations continue to feel the effects of strain brought about by COVID-19.
Wednesday, however, provided a step forward with renewed optimism.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri, a one-to-one mentorship program that pairs adult volunteers with at-risk youth, is just one of numerous examples of changed plans over the past two years and a yearning to get back to normal.
“Our business really suffered during the pandemic,” executive director Ann Merrifield said. “There’s just a huge need that we weren’t able to meet as well.”
The nonprofit continues to struggle to find adult volunteers for the more than 100 children on its waiting list but was hopeful the event would help address the shortage.
The Columbia Chamber of Commerce Showcase CoMo event was postponed in both 2020 and 2021 for the safety of business owners and attendees. The event returned for the first time in three years Thursday at the Holiday Inn Executive Center, as businesses and organizations fostered connections with each other and community members.
“It’s great to have that energy and face-to-face connection back,” Merrifield said. “With this crowd here, I think it’s evident that everybody is ready to be back out.”
Events like the showcase are among the primary ways the program attracts local adults who may have an interest in helping local at-risk youth, she said.
“It’s all about giving businesses the opportunity to make connections, whether it’s business-to-business or business-to-consumer,” chamber President Matt McCormick said of the showcase.
Prior to the pandemic, the event averaged between 1,000 to 1,500 guests and about 100 businesses showcasing products and services. This year, the event showcased a similar number of businesses, with the turnout expected close to normal levels.
“It’s remembering that everything that you need or any service that you could need, make sure you think local first,” McCormick said. “Work with the local business community to get those services and needs taken care of.”
The only requirement businesses must meet in order to be featured at the showcase is membership with the chamber, he said.
The pandemic made a relationship-building with potential clients more challenging for Fresh Ideas Food Service Management, said director of marketing Michael Urban.
“This event helps increase our visibility with other businesses,” Urban said. “We are able to meet with potential partners and make those connections.”
The company serves academic institutions, corporations and senior living communities in the Midwest, South and Southeast, aiding them in creating dining plans.
Swapping business cards, following up with other businesses and stepping outside their booth to build connections with attendees are key to the business’ success at the event, Urban said.
Holding the showcase for the first time since 2019 was gratifying as the chamber continues to look for ways to encourage consumers to prioritize local businesses, McCormick said.
Lauren Tronstad covers local government and politics for the Tribune. Contact her at LTronstad@gannett.com or on Twitter @LaurenTronstad.